I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Gladiator

tn_thegladiatorTHE GLADIATOR is another movie I found on VHS by accident while browsing the video store. It’s a car vigilante TV movie, so I was surprised to find it with the Abel Ferrara movies. Yes, the director of KING OF NEW YORK and BAD LIEUTENANT also did a TV movie starring Ken Wahl and guest starring cheeseball ’80s top 40 DJ Rick Dees as his obnoxious boss. From about ’85 until ’88 Ferrara mostly worked in TV, doing some episodes of MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY, plus this one in ’86. Seemed like something I should investigate.

Wahl plays Rick Benton, a stoic car mechanic working for Dees’s specialty car business. The only people in his life are his kid brother who he raised (Brian Robbins, director of NORBIT), his Vietnam buddy who works at the junkyard, and a customer he’s starting to date, talk radio host Nancy Allen. He works for rich people but chugs along in the kind of lower middle class existence not usually depicted casually in a TV movie. A couple nice touches I noticed: they eat on paper plates, and they wrap gifts with the Sunday funnies. You ever notice how presents on TV and movies are usually perfectly wrapped with shiny bows and sometimes even lids that just lift off? I could never pull that off. The Sunday funnies is more relatable. Good one Ferrara.

mp_thegladiatorRick’s little brother is learning how to drive, but he’s reluctant to take him out practicing due to protective instincts. When they do go out for a practice drive together they get violently rammed by a crazy dude in a black Dodge Charger who we, the omniscient viewers, know has been involved in some other fatal road incidents. Trying to get away from the Charger they end up hit by another truck and when Wahl wakes up in the hospital his brother is dead.

(Side note: these movie doctors really need to work on their bedside manner. Everytime somebody wakes up and asks what happened to their loved one who was also with them, the doctor gets flustered or mean, tries to avoid the question, says, “I didn’t want you to find out like this, but…” Come on dude, like you didn’t foresee this possiblity of the guy wondering what happened? What kind of a professional are you? You need to be prepared.)

Robert Culp is the cop investigating the incident, but he cynically tells Rick that this kind of shit happens every day and nobody ever catches them so give up hope you naive, starry-eyed dreamer. But hey don’t worry, we’ll try. So as you might guess Wahl gets disillusioned and, in kind of a cross between ROLLING VENGEANCE and Batman, decides to soup up his truck and go around patrolling for reckless drivers. He has a loudspeaker to announce he’s making a citizen’s arrest. He rams them off the road and then illegally calls in reports on the police radio frequency, saying “This is the Gladiator!” The only thing super-heroic he doesn’t do is wear a mask. (And unlike the guy in the Charger he doesn’t have tinted windows. But still no witnesses can agree what he looks like.)

Part of the fun is the gadgets he uses. When some drag racers refuse to pull over he pushes a button and a big arm comes out of the back of the truck, fires a grappling hook into the rear window of one of the cars. They stop and immediately start apologizing. He takes their keys and leaves.

Maybe the best one is the drunk driver he follows home. The guy makes it safely into his garage but suddenly the hook breaks through the garage door and hooks the car. In front of all the neighbors who come out to see what the commotion is, the Gladiator drags the car out to the street, rams it a bunch of times with his truck, then leaves.

I don’t know why I’m such a sucker for vigilante movies, because they always do the same shit. Some of the cliches this one includes: the cop who exasperatedly tells the media why you can’t take the law into your own hands, the witnesses to one of his crimes who righteously stand up for him, the radio show where people call in to debate whether the vigilante is a criminal himself or the best thing that ever happened to this city, the copycat vigilante, the girlfriend who criticizes the vigilante and he has to defend the vigilante while pretending not to be him, the part where he makes a mistake and realizes he’s gone too far so he tries to turn himself in.

On the other hand, there are a few subtleties in this one, which is definitely not something I hold my breath for in a TV movie. For example, there is every reason to believe that the guy who killed his brother is a vigilante just like him. Every incident we see with the Charger is precipitated by some traffic violation: somebody hits his car, or is drinking and driving or something. Little brother sped through a yellow light right in front of him, it seems like he was being judgmental about reckless drivers just like Rick was. This is kind of an interesting idea that seems more interesting because they never point it out in dialogue and when the guy is caught (SPOILER) the movie ends and we never get an explanation of who he was, or even see his face that clearly. So it’s nice that they leave that up to you to think about instead of spoon feeding it to you.

(By the way, IMDB trivia says the Dodge Charger was played by leftover General Lees from THE DUKES OF HAZZARD. Ironically, the driver would not have approved of the Duke boys’ reckless driving, and would’ve tried to run them off the road. But they would’ve gone off a jump over some water and got away.)

In that era it was more common to see car stunts on TV (or even movies) than it is now. So the car stuff is pretty good. There’s some nice shots from inside high speed cars and one spectacular flying, spinning, exploding station wagon. The final gladiatorial car battle in a junkyard is pretty tense and enjoyable with the two vehicles using their gadgets against each other (the bad guy has a trick where the hubcaps pop off and a spinning blade extends out of the wheels).

There are definitely some cheesy moments that remind you this is made for TV, and some awkward fadeouts for commercials. The music is by David Frank, after CODE OF SILENCE but before ABOVE THE LAW. He does some good action movie music sometimes (especially OUT FOR JUSTICE) but he also tends to use some cheesy saxophones. This is pretty typical for him, kind of a mix of ’80s keyboard rock and smooth jazz.

But it’s got a pretty raw look, shot on film (except for one humorously out-of-place shot-on-video insert of a car stunt they must’ve screwed up) and Wahl is actually quite good as the brooding hero. You know what, for some reason I never connected that Nancy Allen, Robocop’s faithful partner, is also that bitch that dumped the pigs’ blood on Carrie White. I guess people really do change.

If you’re looking for the usual Abel Ferrara movie, this is not it. But if you like this kind of thing and want to see how it plays with a slight touch of Ferrara (like me) this is a good one. It’s funny because it really starts out feeling like a driver’s ed movie (lecture about drunk driving, emotional mourning relatives, pep talk about defensive driving, warning to pay attention to the road and not putting music on, etc.). Then it turns into a DEATH WISH movie on wheels. No gore or nudity though, since it’s made for TV, so actually this could be shown in driver’s ed. It’s definitely tame compared to all that shit they used to play with the real highway deaths.

One thing that’s funny about that video box that led me to this movie: the description on the box talked about the psychopath that’s going around running people off the road, but it said he was known as The Skull. That was part of what got me to rent it, but it’s completely made up. Nobody ever refers to this guy as anything (or even seems to notice he’s out there) and there’s not a skull on the grill of the car or anything like that to even imply to us that he could be called The Skull. But if some genius hadn’t wanted to spruce up the plot description on the back then maybe I wouldn’t have rented it, so I thank that anonymous writer for his or her hard work.

And so I think it’s time for another ode to the dying institution of the actual physical video store. I tried to explain this in my review of MALONE starring Burt Reynolds, but I think I didn’t explain myself well enough. I talked about how much I loved the box art, and how it led me to the movie, and I made some comment about not coming across that on On-Demand. So of course it turns out MALONE actually is available On-Demand, and a couple people sent me the evidence.

On-Demand is obviously a good technology. It makes the movie available to more people, and whether or not it’s necessary on a movie like MALONE I’m sure the HD looks better than the crappy full-frame VHS I watched. I don’t really understand the Netflix thing (I like to pick out a movie and watch it then, not wait for it to come in the mail at a later date) but with the convenience of On-Demand it seems pretty obvious that it will eventually have to replace the old school video store. Same goes for music, I like to browse the music stores but I hear their business is going south too due to downloads and what not with the little pocket record collection pods people use.

But I like the browsing, I like the visual and tactile experience of finding the movies and music I want. I like finding and holding in my hand cool painted movie poster art or ridiculous photoshopping, reading the goofy descriptions on the back. Stumbling across some crazy shit I never heard of before, showing it to a friend and asking if they’ve heard of it. That was the point I was trying to make about MALONE. When I found this box:

malone

I had to watch it. But I don’t think I would’ve watched it just based on this:

maloneondemand

(photo courtesy of Chris H. in the comments, thank you sir.)

Maybe they’ll eventually start adding “cover art” to all these digital files of movies and music, and that will help a little. But for now I’m gonna savor the browsing experience. Finding stuff by looking around, not by search engine.

Thank you, VHS box, for telling me about THE GLADIATOR.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Saturday, May 16th, 2009 at 8:07 pm and is filed under Action, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

24 Responses to “The Gladiator”

  1. I agree about the pleasures of browsing. Netflix and OnDemand can be usefull I’m sure but never having to leave the house to pursue you’re interests isn’t always a good thing. Also like Nancy Allen, mostly for her work with De Palma.

  2. This movie reminded of ” The Exterminator 2″ , with the vigilante theme and tricked out cars , how does it compare to that one? I mean , coming from Ferrara it must be more serious , but I loved the Exterminator’s goofiness .

    Also I love physical video stores. I remember how ,when I was searching for new horror movies as a kid, after watching the famous ones like the Friday the 13th and the Nightmares , I finally found C.H.U.D..Remember the box of that one? The one with the plastic puppet coming out of the sewers? I loved my video store for having this strange movie I’ve never seen or heard of! Same thing with the Re-animators and the Italian post-apocalypse movies like Castellari’s Bronx Warriors .But I’ve got to admit that the selection of obscure movies is getting really thin , even here in Italy there’s a lot of Blockbusters and the movies you find are the same shit you find at the mall.Hell , there was a video store called “the Red” here in my town who rented movies and HIS OWN BOOKS ( mostly Stephen King)!

  3. I found a movie called Scorpion at the Captian Video on VHS. It had a picture of a guy with a ‘stache and sunglasses jumping through glass.

    One of the lines on the cover said, “Starring International Karate Champion Tony Tulleners. ‘I fought him three times and never got even.’ – Chuck Norris”

    That’s one of many treasures I stumbled across. The Captain Video I go to doesn’t do much business, (they have a total of 0 DVDs) but the lady that owns it makes wedding videos and I don’t know why or how it’s even still open, (I think they may still have VHS porn in the back) but it is so I’m not gonna complain.

    I guess that’s what else On Demand is lacking. Personalized wedding videos and VHS porn.

  4. Actually, with the sweet combination of XBOX Live and Netflix, you can watch movies instantly by browsing through cover art. And I have just under 500 titles on my Netflix Instant Queue, ready to flip through and pick something. I’m with ya on the whole actually going to a video store thing, that’s OG, but its almost 2010, baby. Media evolution is upon us!

  5. See, Vern, but the beauty is you can lead a fulfilling life of both browsing the video store AND having a Netflix queue. My girlfriend and I have a Netflix queue, but we still drop by the video store once every week or 2 for a spontaneous rental.

    Netflix is great for an anal-retentive, completist movie nerd like me. I plan my week in movies out ahead of time. For example, this coming week we should have coming FAHRENHEIT 451 (we’re watching a Truffaut every week), PIERROT LE FOU (we’re watching a Godard every week), BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT because we haven’t seen it, and DJANGO for me on Wednesday night when my girlfriend has plans. And if we watch these in a timely fashion, we’ll be able to get back some horror movies in time for the weekend. (is WARLOCK any good?). And not only that, but then we also have a second queue for TV shows we’re following, we usually get one disc a week, right now we’re watching season 2 of THE SOPRANOS. And the Instant Viewing, while not really all that great and lacking a great selection, is perfect for those Friday evenings where she falls asleep before me and I want to kill some time.

    So Netflix affords me the ability to be a huge nerd and schedule my movie watching, but that doesn’t somehow prevent me from enjoying the experience of going down the street to Hollywood Video and browsing the aisles. All I’m saying is that one can lead a fulfilling movie-going life by combining both styles of rentals.

  6. If you like vigilante movies have you ever thought of reviewing Boondock Saints? There’s supposedly a sequel coming this year, though it’s been long delayed.

  7. Vern I wasn’t trying to give you a hard time about the on demand thing, it just seemed too perfect not to take a picture and let you know. I think you made yourself pretty clear in the Malone review, and that is truly an awesome box.

    Netflix on the Xbox does have a fun “browsing” feature but a lot of times the DVD box art is horrible — crappy photoshop work that looks like an old Master P CD cover. Especially on those older DVDs from the late 90s and early 2000s. I don’t know why they don’t just use the poster art.

  8. I was just lamenting how much I miss the old mom-and-pop video stores. I love Netflix, but I used to love spending an hour or more wandering the aisles, choosing just the right combination of movies to get me through the night. It’s just not the same since DVD took over, though. These little stores were never able to replace the 20-year backlog of obscure videotapes, some of them in the huge boxes as big as bricks, on DVD, and they had to start selling off their old VHS stock to make room for the new technology. Plus, I live in New York, where all the good video stores have closed (Kim’s, Brooklyn Heights, etc.), so Netflix is all I have left.

  9. @ Hamslime: The cover art of The Scorpion was used on a budget DVD collection called Maximum Action that contains eight flicks, including The Scorpion and Nine Deaths of the Ninja. It retails for about ten bucks and is well worth it for that awesome picture of that aviator-wearing dude jumping stashe-first through plate glass.

  10. Ferrara on TV was how I was first exposed to him as a teen, which sent me out after his movies. I was a Miami Vice and Crime Story addict, and Michael Mann had a habit of giving some very edgy directors work, letting them push the limits of TV violence at the time – or at least that’s how it felt when I was watching this stuff in Europe. Ferrara’s work on the seriously awesome Crime Story is completely worth investigating, really defining that show. Wahl was great as the lead of Wiseguy, the other terrific bit of US TV to get imported at the time. Some great action in that show.

  11. Good point Dan, but as Mr. Majestyk said all the legendary video stores in New York have died recently and that pretty much seems to be the way things are going. We still have some good independent stores here, but from what I understand the economy and changing technologies are killing those kinds of places, so I’m just saying I’m gonna appreciate them while they last.

    Then again, we still have record stores here, so who knows. Maybe somebody will figure out a way to keep it alive. I hope so.

    As for the Boondock Saints, I’m not sure I’ll ever watch that movie again to review it, but I think I did do a review of the making-of documentary OVERNIGHT.

  12. I’m surprised you didn’t point out the nice touch of The Gladiator going too far because he stops a person who is driving recklessly because he’s trying to get his pregnent wife to the hospital. At least I’m assuming that this is the same movie I remember watching when I was a kid.

    Oh and record stores are kind of thriving again actually.

  13. I worked at the last surviving local video store here in my town for three years before we succumbed to DVD and Blockbuster and Netflix and all that. We had thousands of hard to find VHS tapes, multiple foreign sections, a blaxploitation section, an obscure kung-fu section. MovieTyme was the shit.

    I watched more movies and learned more about movies working there then most people will in their entire lives. It was a truly sad day when our owner told us it was finally happening. I ended up buying out about 300 VHS tapes from him when he closed the store.

    I have Netflix now, cause I fucking hate going to Blockbuster or Hollywood, but man, RIP MovieTyme, and all the other badass local stores that have fallen with it.

  14. oh yeah….we had a phenomenal back room full of VHS porn gems like “Chicks with Thick Hairy Muffs” (1982), and all the classics, (Debby, Pocahontas, Ping Pong, Holmes).

    Now thats what makes a sweetass fucking local video store. Oldass porn.

  15. Thanks for talking up the local video store, Vern. I work at a mom and pop place here in Austin, and so far we haven’t really felt the pinch of Netflix or On Demand. We’re lucky enough to have a customer base here that values the personal, weirdo touch that we bring to the game. We actually still buy VHS movies if it’s something weird that’s unavailable on DVD, which Blockbuster won’t do and Netflix can’t do. All Netflix has really done to us is to sort out the normals, so we don’t have to deal with them. Our clientele is made up almost completely of super-cool, smart people with a good sense of humor, and on the other hand, complete fucking lunatics. Both of which make for a great atmosphere.

    Thanks for the support, bud.

  16. Since video stores are still around , it would be nice to see some new “VERN’S VHS PILE” articles , you know , for posterity ! I remember the first time this video-store-issue was made relevant to me : everybody with their own DVD column , discussing extras and commentaries , and here it comes Vern , reviewing Frankenfish on VHS !

  17. Mr. Majestyk – I’ll have to pick that up.

    I already have 9 Deaths on DVD (Best title sequence ever) and I have Scorpion on VHS but Tough to Kill, and The Silencer by title alone sound promising.

    I also need to pick up another VCR so I can actually watch my VHS movies again. I still haven’t seen Full Metal Ninja and Zombie vs. Ninja and they’ve been sitting next to my T.V. for about six months.

  18. It would be neat to see some newer movies be released on VHS. It does have a certain aesthetic to it that kinda enhances certain movies.

    I saw a REALLY bad copy of Rabid Grannies, but the low quality added a bit of atmosphere to it, not to mention cover up a lot of the production values that otherwise may have lessened the experience.

    Obviously VHS isn’t going to do The Dark Knight or Wall-E any favors, but I’m sure something like the Masters of Horror episodes or maybe Starship Troopers 3 might benifit. I sure as hell don’t need to see the Blu-ray version of them.

  19. When they said MACHETE was gonna be straight to video (I don’t think it is anymore) I was hoping they’d at least do a promo version that’s on VHS with an oversized box and painted cover like it was some weird Henry Silva movie or something.

  20. That would be pretty awesome.

    Hopefully Stu can get his Ninja vs. Nazi movie going and that could be the first in a Straight to VHS resurgence.

  21. solongyoubastard

    May 18th, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Have you seen Ferrara’s Fear City? It’s about a serial killer disciplined in the martial arts who stalks strippers in Manhattan (would have to check the video box to see if they refer to him as The Claw or The Wrath or something, they definitely don’t in the movie so who knows.) Tom Berenger plays a former boxer who decides to put a stop to the killing, so it’s just possible that these two meet up for a little karate-versus-boxer climax!

    My friend discovered this website recently, it’s makes me nostalgic for the good old days of “browsing”…

    http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/vhs-videos

  22. Ken Wahl. Abel Farrera. Grappling hook.

    Sold.

    Check out The Soldier for more Ken Wahl goodness. If memory serves, he drives a Porsche 911 through the Berlin Wall(Wahl?)

  23. God, I must’ve watched Malone six or eleven times back when I first got a vcr.

  24. This film is on DVD in the UK on a cheap-ass (or cheap-arse as we say in the UK) label called “Hollywood DVD”. I’ve seen it for sale dirt cheap loads of times, had absolutely no idea it was a Ferrara film. I’ll have to pick it up next time I see it, which will now probably be never again.

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